The Wood-Fired Blog

Wood-Fired Croatia (or more accurately, Istria)

We just returned from a very nice trip to Croatia. I have wanted to explore the Dalmatian coast for years, and the timing was right this summer. Our older daughter spent the summer working on campus in Boston (a very cool research project on pre-fab building using 3D modeling software and CNC laser equipment) and she had two weeks off before the start of school. And we put it to good use. Fly to London (see family), fly to Venice, boat to Istria (in Croatia), drive to Dubrovnik (bottom of Croatia), drive to Zagreb (the capital), fly to London (see more family) and fly home. It sounds hectic, but it was really very nice.

Istria pizza oven

I thought I would have share a couple of the cooking and food highlights — particularly the ovens. I have written before that the pizza in Venice isn’t very special. I don’t know if it’s an urban legend or actually true, but the story I’ve heard is that Venice had real problems with fires in medieval times, which is why they moved all of the glass manufacturing furnaces out to the island of Murano and banned wood-fired pizza ovens. Even if it isn’t true, it’s a good story. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wood-fired pizza oven in Venice, or had a particularly good pizza (but I had some really good fish).

Then we took the ferry to Istria.

Istria pizza oven

Istria was different; it’s been called Croatia’s Tuscany for good reason. The region was part of Italy until the second world war, and it still looks and feels Italian. The road signs are all written in both Serbo-Croatian and Italian, most restaurants serve antipasti, primi, secondi e dolce, and Italian is spoken widely. Olive trees, vineyards, olive oil, pasta, truffles, hilltop towns, and pizza ovens. We came, we saw, we ate.

I asked a number of restaurant owners where they got their oven, and most said that they bought an Italian-made kit locally, and installed it themselves. I even recognized a few of the ovens by brand. The pizza oven tools also came from Italy.

Istria pizza oven

Istria pizza oven

Istria pizza

 

IstriaIstria is highlighted in red.

We knew it was coming, but you could feel the difference after we drove across the peninsula and turned south, down the coast. The Italian road signs, the pizza ovens and pasta served at every restaurant was gone. Along with our ability to easily communicate. The family can speak Italian, French and Spanish, and none of it did us any good. haha.

The good news was that we had entered the land of the wood-fired grill. Which was equally great. But more on that next.

 

Pizza Making Should be Simple

This photo of Del Popolo Pizza a new wood-fired Food Truck in San Francisco from The Bend Bulletin really struck a cord with me. While the company has been getting a lot of attention in the press for, among other things, the sheer size of the food truck itself (it is based on a 14 ton, 20-foot shipping container that holds the pizza oven), what I like about this photo is how it captures the true nature of great pizza — and how simple it should be.

Photo by Nick Czap / The New York Times

Great dough, great tomatoes and cheese; a hot wood-fired oven; and of course some nice skill and techniques. Look at how uncluttered and calm this scene is.

Bread Baking and Oven Temperature

We received an email question today from a member who has bee following my bread quest who was interested in hearing more on bread baking temperature. It’s a really good topic; one that deserves a lot more attention.

One of the habits I have developed over years of wood-fired bread baking is a general (and probably misguided) disregard for oven temperature accuracy. Pizza ovens (and all wood-fired masonry ovens) are very forgiving in terms of the acceptable temperature range. The moistness in the oven chamber gives you a lot of wiggle room. So while I have some general rules ,I have never put a lot of stock into the differences between 425F and 450F in a conventional oven. And I think to become a better baker, that is something I need to develop.

So, going forward, I will start taking better notes on the oven temperature, both at the start of baking and at the finish. That will be helpful.

Here are some general rules that I try to follow:

You can start baking bread in the high 500F’s in a pizza oven. Remember to allow your oven to sufficiently cool before loading your bread; or you will burn the outside while the crumb is still doughy;

You should start baguettes first if you are baking multiple loads from a single firing (they bake more quickly and can take the higher heat);

If your oven temperature is well balanced (top and bottom) and within the general range required for bread baking you can roughly gauge whether your bread is done (or close) by the color of the crust;

Your finished bread should have an internal temperature of about 200F-205F;

If you are baking in a conventional oven, you should pre-heat your oven to 50-75F higher than your baking temperature. For baguettes, you can start baking at 500F, and then lower the temperature to 425F when you load your bread. Try 475F and 400F for a larger, whole wheat boule that requires a longer baking time;

Be sure to let your bread cool before you cut it and start eating it. The crumb needs to cool and finish baking for quite a while after you have removed the loaf from the oven;

Don’t eat warm bread!

 

Pizza Ovens and Real Estate

We are on a roll. Two Forno Bravo ovens in the real estate section of two different newspapers in one day!

From the Post and Courier in Charlotte, SC. 225 W. Poplar St. — Art deco-inspired Wagener Terrace home coolly adds functionality for disabled child. Be sure to look at the slideshow to see our oven.

In the corner of the yard is the redone garage, painted a festive yellow. It’s now a Tuscan style kitchen complete with the stucco “Forno Bravo” wood-burning pizza oven that reaches temperatures of 1,200 degrees, Argentine grill, countertop with sink and a metal island table.

“I call this my cooking show (table),” Christina Stewart quipped.

A Pizza Oven Can Help Sell Your House

There are a couple of fun things to note on today’s NY Times Real Estate article, The Kitchen’s Day in the Sun.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

If you are a part of the Forno Bravo community, you probably already know this, but a great outdoor kitchen or pizza oven can help you sell your house; even in today’s extended down market. And even if your oven isn’t the feature that makes the sale happen, if you do it right, an inviting outdoor pizza oven can add more to your home value than the cost to install it. And besides, even if both of those factors don’t happen, you should at least break even, and end up with a great new hobby and a wonderful place for entertaining your friends. Or, as the NYT puts it:

The rage for alfresco kitchens first took hold on the East Coast about 10 years ago, when the economy was thriving, said Jonathan Giannettino, an owner of Curto’s Appliances in Yonkers. By 2009 business had dropped off sharply.

Now, with new houses and expensive vacations on hold, he said, “business has picked up” as people demonstrate a new willingness to upgrade their houses in order to enjoy backyard “staycations” during the warmer months, often installing heating lamps and fire pits to extend the season.

And outdoor kitchens, originally a West Coast phenomenon, have evolved far beyond the humble outdoor grill next to a picnic table. Especially when makers of kitchen appliances, like the Viking Range Corporation, “decided to go after this market a decade ago,” Mr. Giannettino said, “they took the idea of outdoor kitchens to a whole other level.”

The other interesting aspect of the article is that the writer feature Forno Bravo as the “for example” company for describing a typical outdoor pizza oven. We’re becoming the default alternative. What’s next? Will Forno Bravo become the generic term of a pizza oven? Haha. “When did you put in your Forno Bravo?”

The oven in the photo, while not from Forno Bravo, has a finish very similar to our Toscana oven. Which is nice.

 

Peppers Roasted Over Wood

Mark Bitman of the NY Times is one of my favorite writers on any topic, and I have enjoyed seeing his transition from being a pure food columnist as “The Minimalist”, to being a columnist in the editorial department writing about our food supply and food policy.

At the same time, he is still doing great stuff with recipes. Here is a link to today’s How to To Everything column: Great Roasted Peppers: First, Get a Pile of Wood.

Mark Bitman/NY Times

I make roasted peppers many ways: with a fork over a gas flame, as I did 44 years ago (a silly method, unless maybe you are doing only one); in an oven or gas grill (efficient, but imperfect); in a broiler (better); and over charcoal, which is the best way, unless you have (as I did last week) actual wood.

A Tuscan grill in a pizza oven is a great way to roast peppers; though I have to admit the Mr. Bitman is a much better chef than I am. I burned my peppers in our pizza oven last summer on vacation.

Water and Dough Structure

I have been experimenting with baguettes recently, including different approaches to fermentation time, better folding techniques, improved methods for loaf shaping, scoring, placement in the oven and steam.

Now I am going to start trying to hone in on the optimal hydration for my flour of choice and my oven—Trader Joe’s All Purpose Wheat flour and a Presto pizza oven.

As a general rule, wetter (higher hydration) doughs produce bread that is chewier and has a well developed, moist crumb with nice air holes. But reading various break cookbooks and web sites, there is not universal agreement on exactly what constitutes a high hydration dough, and what the proper hydration levels are for a traditional French baguette. Some experts say that 60% hydration is enough, while others will note that 60% might work in France, where the wheat is softer and has a lower gluten content and it absorbs less water, making that relatively low hydration level appropriate.

At the same time, I have been working at the other end of the spectrum—with a wetter 80% dough recipe recently, and the results have been very telling. Simply put, my baguettes are too flat. No matter how hard I try to develop the dough structure to enable my loaves to hold a round shape, and even though I am now using a couche to hold my loaves upright while they doing their final proofing (and a baguette flipping board)—my baguettes are just too flat. While the crumb is very good, I don’t like the shape. Equally, while crust is good, it veers toward chewy, rather than that light and airy crunch that I like in a baguette.

I was talking with our teenage daughter about the dynamic between water and dough strength, and we came up with an analogy of a thin water balloon with too much water—it just bulges out. Gravity tries to flatten the wetter, heavier dough, while the gluten network in the dough struggles to hold the loaf in shape. And with an 80% formula using AP flour, there just isn’t enough structure.

Put another way, 80-odd% hydration is the range typically seen in a ciabatta, a free-form Italian loaf with big holes and a chewy crust. With no hope of holding a formed loaf shape, the baker simply lays it out like a dog bone shaped puddle of dough.

So there we have it. I believe that 60% is too dry to give me the crumb development that I want, and I am convinced that I won’t be able to make the style of baguette that I want at 80%. I guess it’s time to learn what the sweet is for my conditions, my flour and my oven.

It sounds like fun.

Paella is Becoming Popular This Spring

A second article on Paella in the NY Times in one week. It makes me happy.

Paella is really picnic food, ideal for a casual gathering. The idea is to hang out, slowly preparing the ingredients and then lazily sipping a drink or two while the rice cooks. And if there are friends who want to help, all the better. Especially when it comes to fava beans. They require a little fiddling.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread

600 grams whole wheat
200 white whole wheat
200 AP flour
600 grams (60)% water
10 grams (1%) yeast
20 grams (2%) salt
40 grams olive oil
30 grams honey
2 cup old fashion oats (3-5 minute cooking)
2 cup boiling water
Pinch of salt

Please forgive my slightly funky recipe format, where I mix baker’s percentages and grams with cups—but the bread came out really well, so I will be going back and putting some structure into the recipe. For example, it will be interesting seeing how the percentages come out and what the actual dough hydration is.

Interestingly, I am not even sure how you are suppose to calculate oats as part of a baker’s percentage formula. Seeds (which do not absorb water), are not counted as part of the flour, which makes a lot of sense. But what about whole grains?

To make the bread, I added 2 cups of boiling waters and a pinch of salt to the oats and let it soak until the mixture had cooled to room temperature. Then I mixed all of the bread ingredients and added the oatmeal, and mixed it on medium speed (KitchenAid 3) for 10 minutes.

Following my improved fermentation techniques, I did a bulk fermentation, punched down the dough, and then did three or four folds and shaped a boule and let the dough rise a second time. Then I divided the dough, did a boule fold, shaped my loaves and put them into a linen lined whicker basket and a baneton.

Because the oatmeal was still warm (though not hot) when I added it to the bread, the yeast was very active and the dough expanded very aggressively. To bring it under control, I did the final proofing for the boules in the refrigerator. The oven spring was huge, and despite some pretty good scoring, the loaves exploded a little on the side.

The flavor, the texture of the crumb, the lightness of the loaves, and the moisture were all really good. All of that in a formula that is 80% whole whole wheat.

One last note. I am feeling a lot better about my oven management of the Presto oven—this is my second one, and I have just finished a complete curing (or dry out) cycle. I fired the oven for about an hour with three pieces of wood, and then let it cool down into bread baking temperatures for an hour and 45 minutes. I have also started using a garden sprayer to create steam in the oven. By opening the oven door just enough for the sprayer wand, you can create a lot of steam without a lot of effort. The oven was just right, and the top of the bread, the bottom of the bread and crumb were all ready at the same time.

Today I baked the two large boules and two baguettes, all in a single bread loading in my Presto oven. Who says you can’t bake a lot of bread in a small pizza oven. :-) It was great.